Be true, be honest, be clear
And be the CEO the team needs,
The customers want,
The investors believe in.
— Jason ✨Be Kind✨ Lemkin (@jasonlk) May 6, 2023
Being a founder is easy. You just start something. Grab a smart friend, hop on over to WeWork (when we did that), hit Canva or 99 Designs for the logo, and you’re off to the races.
Being a CEO is tough. You have to convince people to join you. To drag the troops up the hill. To invest in you when there’s no logical reason to. To do the impossible. You probably haven’t done it before.
Turns out, first-time CEOs are often the most successful. Because they don’t know it’s impossible.
But they are often just awful managers. Or at least, far worse than they are the second time. This means more employee churn, friction, drama than you need.
You’ll grow faster, with less stress, and more success, if you’re a better CEO earlier in your career. Especially in SaaS. Because SaaS is so cross-functional.
And it turns out, you can train now to be a better CEO when the time comes. Especially if you think that’s something you might want to do down the road.
To help, my top 7 suggestions for CEOs-in-waiting.
- Manage People. This is one of the best things you can do, because 50% of the job of a CEO is recruiting a team, leading a team, empowering a team, convincing a team. This team will include investors, the public, press, PR, etc. — but it’s all a team. Manage anyone you can, even if it’s not perfect. My first management job was managing HR. I didn’t want to learn HR as a function, I turned it down at first. And then I realized I was wrong, apologized, and went back and took the reports. I was lucky I got the opportunity.
- Work for The Best One You Can. This may be obvious, but try to do this at least once if you can. The best way to do this is to join the management team of the best start-up that will have you. Even if you get topped 12-24 months down the road, it’s worth it to have reported to (and thus worked directly with) the best CEO you can.
- Find One Great Mentor / Advisor / Coach. Once you become CEO, find one person you can confide in, that can push you harder, point out where you need to do more, and generally simply help. Someone that’s done it before. More here: I Don’t Know about CEO Coaches. But We All Could Use CEO Trainers.
- Try to Care More About People. And Show It. This is one of the top mistakes I see in first-time CEOs. They care so much about the company, but they forget to care about the people, the team. They just assume everyone should be as committed as they are. But everyone else can’t be. You aren’t going to double your EQ overnight. But try a few things. Say “Thank You” more often. Give raises more often. Give spot bonuses more often. Give 20% more shares to your top 10% employees, without them asking. Take the team on outings. Do a retreat for the whole company when you hit $5m ARR. Do stuff together. Do dinners. Stay late with the sales team when they’re trying to close the last deals of the quarter, and take ’em out for drinks after. Do it all. Again — if nothing else — SAY THANK YOU!
- Learn to Forgive People. CEOs are some of the best grudge holders out there. Think back to Jobs and Gates. A little of that is OK, at least for external enemies. But you have to learn not to find enemies inside as CEO that aren’t there. Folks will screw up. Folks will let you down. Folks will simply make mistakes. Folks won’t realize they are hurting your feelings. As a manager, you have to learn to forgive. As a CEO, it’s critical. And especially, forgive your cofounders. Cofounder conflict wrecks startups. Some of it can’t be avoided. But, a lot can. If you learn to forgive.
- Step Up and Own Something That Matters That No One Asked You to Own. This is the fast track to success in most cases. And it teaches you what being a CEO in the end is going to be all about.
- Hire People Better Than You (and That Aren’t Your Friends). Whatever you do, don’t hire executives that aren’t better than you. This is where so many new managers stumble. You can hire up-and-comers, that’s OK. But as CEO the key is everyone on the team should be better than you if possible. This isn’t a threat. It’s a way to make your equity worth 100x more. Before you are a CEO yourself, experiment here. Don’t just hire your friends, and don’t hire people that make you look good. Hire people materially better than you, and that look, act and feel different. But that you 100% believe in. Amazing things will happen. You will learn so much here.
(note: an updated SaaStr Classic post)